MANILA // With the Philippine election campaign underway, the question being asked is whether the country's first attempt at automated polling will be ready on time. The controversial 7.2 billion peso (Dh568.8 million) project, which was awarded to Venezuelan firm Smartmatic and its Philippine partner Total Information Management last July to supply 82,200 optical-scan voting machines, has been beset with problems and delays in manufacturing.
Field tests have put a question mark over their reliability while six major provinces have no telecommunication link to transmit election results, according to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), which is overseeing the elections. Another major concern has been reports that up to 5,000 cell phone jamming devices have been imported into the country. "Signal jammers are nothing new," James Jimenez, a Comelec spokesman, told journalists recently. "But 5,000 in one shipment gives us cause for concern."
"We are still trying to verify the accuracy of these reports and who brought them in." Election results will be sent from precincts to counting centres using cell phone frequencies. What is worrying Comelec is that those wanting to sabotage the count could jam the signals. "When people try to jam the system they're not just sabotaging the election project, they're sabotaging the electoral process ... That is something that we are bound by the constitution to protect," Mr Jimenez said.
A number of politicians, non-governmental organisations and big businesses are asking the government to revert to manual counting for the election on May 10 rather than risk a breakdown of the automated election process. Many observers have said the government of the president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo left it too late to introduce automated polling. Also they have raised concerns over Smartmatic, which has been under investigation by the US department of justice for alleged bribery.
Previous elections in the Philippines have been tainted by allegations of massive fraud and cheating. Mrs Arroyo won the 2004 election with a narrow margin of one million votes, many of which were delivered by warlords loyal to the administration in the south of the country. The Comelec commissioner Armand Velasco told a congressional hearing recently that it was prepared to do a manual count of up to 30 per cent of the votes as part of a backup plan.
With 50 million registered voters, that represents 15 million votes, and in an election where 10 candidates are running for president they would have a decisive impact on the outcome. Fidel Ramos won the presidency in 1992 with 5,342.321 million votes, Joseph Estrada in 1998 with 10,722,295 and Mrs Arroyo in 2004 with 12,905,808 votes. Even Mrs Arroyo is not certain automated polling will be ready on time. During a dinner with foreign correspondents last month she said her main concern was that automation had not been properly tested.
Asked if she was worried about the possible failure of the system, she said: "Yes, I'm worried. It might fail in some areas." The machines scan hand-marked ballots and relay the results to a central server using mobile-phone networks. Test runs last month revealed transmission glitches due to weak signals, as well as problems reading filled-in ballots. Ballot papers will be over half a metre long and voters have to shade a circle next to their candidates. If the circle is not fully shaded the scanner will not read the ballot.
According to Mr Jimenez there have been problems printing ballot papers because there were 1,631 "unique ballots" throughout the country. "Each district carries a different set of names of local candidates at the back of the ballot while the names of national candidates for president, vice president and senator appear on the front," he said. "One of the problems we face is securely shipping the two-foot-long ballots to their respective districts," he said.
Voters will be electing a president, vice president, 12 senators and 287 congressmen. They will also be electing thousands of local politicians from city mayors to village representatives. Smartmatic executives have said all the problems can be fixed despite the time constraints. Cesar Flores, the Smartmatic president for South East Asia, admitted recently that 30 per cent or 40,000 precincts in remote areas will experience delays in transmitting election results. But he made an assurance that the votes will get through.